Burton takes part in landmark event

HIGH POINT, NC - For the first time in over 150 years, elk once again are roaming about the Cataloochee (NC) Valley. Ward Burton, driver if the No. 22 CAT Dodge and an avid supporter of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, was on hand for the ...

HIGH POINT, NC - For the first time in over 150 years, elk once again are roaming about the Cataloochee (NC) Valley. Ward Burton, driver if the No. 22 CAT Dodge and an avid supporter of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, was on hand for the ceremony that took place Friday, February 2. The "soft-release" of the 26 elk marked the beginning of a five-year experiment to determine if they can once again survive in the Smokies.

"It was an unbelievable experience, to see those massive animals come out of that trailer and stop and stare at you - I can't even tell you the emotion that overcomes you," said Burton. "It was a project that I got involved in during the final stages of planning and executing. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation put together most of the monetary resources through local chapters and through the help of other great partners in the project. I was pleased to be able to contribute to such a landmark event.

"These are the types of things that the Ward Burton Wildlife Foundation gets involved with. It gives me great pride to help fund projects that support wildlife and habitat conservation."

Elk once roamed the woods of the Cataloochee Valley, but human development and settlement in the area eradicated the elk herd.

"One of the primary roles of our national parks is to preserve and sometimes restore natural processes and biological diversity," said Mike Tollefson, Great Smoky Mountains National Park Superintendent. "Where it is feasible, that may mean reintroducing species that historically were part of an ecosystem."

The Cataloochee Valley was selected after biologists found that it had a favorable habitat and it was strongly supported by Governor Hunt and the local chapters of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF). RMEF will supply the majority of the estimated $1.1 million it will cost to conduct the five-year experiment.

"The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation has a strong support group that extends further than the Rocky Mountains," added Burton. "They are committed to ensuring that elk will bugle among the mountains across our nation. I am thrilled to be a part of such a great organization."

The elk, equipped with radio collars, will remain in a 3-acre pen for the next few months while biologists study their movements and to help determine their habitat use and food preferences. Biologists will use this information to decide whether the Great Smoky Mountains will support a full-scale elk reintroduction.

"I look forward to the day when I can take my son to the Cataloochee Valley and be walking in the woods and hear the bugling of elk," said Burton. "That is what makes all of this worthwhile."

After 2-3 months in the acclimation pen, the 26 radio-collared elk will be released into the wilderness where they will continue to be monitored. If everything goes as planned, an additional 25 elk are expected to be released in early 2002 and 2003 to bring the total to around 75 animals.

-H. Stoddard

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Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Ward Burton